Europe


91+Lue-yzDLVolume II of Peter Ackroyd’s ambitious historical project charting the history of England from its earliest days to the present focuses on the reign of Henry VIII, his son and two daughters.

While Henry VIII was  not the first Tudor,(Henry VII was technically the first king from this welsh household), no other ruler besides perhaps his daughter Elizabeth exemplified the manic energy of their clan.

Ackroyd is not the first historian to chart English history through the rise of either the English church or the relatively brief dynastic reign of the Tudor clan. What makes Ackroyd so successful is the delight he seems to take in telling this story.

While this is not a critical examination of the Tudors (there are already enough of those), it is not a whitewash of a dynasty either. Ackroyd is perfectly keen to note Elizabeth’s indecisiveness, Edwards gullibility, Mary’s messianic drive, and Henry’s general disregard for decency. but while he shows us the flaws that make these rulers, “all too human”, he is also emphatic that the sometimes murky orders Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth especially gave helped to slowly etch away at what had been the Catholic church in England and ended up becoming a distinctly English invention: the Anglican Church (Church of England). Put another way, ecclesiastical matters went from being dealt as the Church IN England to the Church OF  England.

Describing the development of the Anglican Church, starting as it does in fits and spurts, has been a difficult endeavor for historians and faithful alike. surprisingly, Ackroyd is able to describe the whole evolution of the English Reformation from the dissolution of the monasteries to the settlement  under Elizabeth with surprising ease. His transitions from reign to reign are assisted by the presence of a colourful supporting cast from Sir Thomas More to Archbishop Cranmer to Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots. The rise and fall of  these eclectic persons add wonderful context to the events that surround the monarch and provide anecdotal support to Ackroyd’s interpretation of events.

Most refreshing in Ackroyd’s volume is the distinct absence of sentiment or interest regarding the love affairs of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII was a notorious philanderer with an obsession concerning male progeny that borders on compulsion. Additionally, Elizabeth’s oft written on-off affair with Robert Dudley does not feature as prominently a narrative device. Instead, Ackroyd spends a great deal of time on the administrative costs of war, poverty, and reformation/counter-reform.

None of which is to say that Ackroyd’s story is devoid of rhetorical flourishes. Instead, he brings the reader’s focus back to the ground amid the dirty streets of London or the bloody marshes battlefields in Calais. In both respects Ackroyd’s talent as a storyteller is on display. abjuring sensationalist stories, Ackroyd spends time to weave complex narrative into a digestible, if long, tapestry.

Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I by Peter Ackroyd. St. Martin’s Griffin 2014. 528 pages. Purchased Copy

Marxist historians have generally been infatuated with the story of the French Revolution. In the 1970s and earlier, the revolution which overthrew the ancien regime of the French Bourbon monarchy slid easily in the political conceptions of class and egalitarianism.

A forceful and bloody siege upon the forces of feudalism that dragged humanity kicking and screaming into the modern age, the French revolution is in fact more complex than either the Marxists would love to believe or as pitiful as the Edmund burke’s of the world have seen it.

Inevitably any discussion then pivots to agency and guilt. of the persons actvely involved in what would historically become known as “the terror”, the most recognizable if not most popular is the enigmatic Maximillien Robespierre.

Robespierre, a pronvincial lawyer from northwestern France wth little to no background in politics, was also the man who sent thousands to the guillotine, and would eventually be swallowed up in the sea of violence he had so desperately created, is an alternately hated and beloved historical figure.

To critics of the Revolution, he was at least permissive, if not entirely guilty of mass genocide, torture and the suspension of law. To others, his willingness to take unpopular and violent methods to achieve real tangible goals was justified.

I am currently reading Ruth Scurr’s brilliant biography of Robespierre, Fatal Purity. Her principal diagnosis, that Robespierre can best be understood by his times and the actions of those around him, is  a fresh approach that does not fall for the familiar tropes of good and evil.

A full book review is forthcoming, but I wanted to post this YouTube series of a BBC documentary on Robespierre that includes Scurr, Simon Schama, and Slavoj Zizek, amongst others.

A fabulous video with great acting and analysis, it should be a primer before reading Scurr, and certainly helped me conceptualize a period of time much more easily.

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The title of this blog post is likely one of the more bombastic posts concerning the life of the late Anglo American historian and public intellectual. In addition to being three years late, it will undoubtedly be less well poised and written than those who knew doctor Judt or had spent any time with him.

Nonetheless, I propose to do some of my own positing in the mention of his unfortunate and untimely demise.

I admit I opened my first chapters of Judt’s magnum opus Postwar just as the last pages of his life were being written by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). In 2009 I was studying at the University of Salzburg in the aforementioned city in Austria, studying in the department of history with coursework in contemporary and historical roots of fascism through the lens of affected central European nations. On the assigned coursework for the year was Judt, along with synonymous names on Europe: Mazower, Kershaw et al.

Judt’s work had the effect on me like the crashing sound of a sheet of glass. I was in my third year studying history, had read Mazower and Kershaw of course, and embarrassingly had spent a great deal of time reading Hobsbawm and EP Thompson and Marxist theories of history, trying in vain to get my older and jaded professors who had slumped toward something less than my admitted fantasist manner to see the error of their ways.

Previously, the history of Europe after the Second World War had had little to no interest in me. I was more concerned issues that, (to me) had greater urgency: grain strikes in France in 1789 or the establishment of the Spartacus League in 1917. These looked and sounded more appealing to me, and I wondered what on earth I could learn from the formation of homogenized nations in an increasingly peaceful Europe?

Judt showed quite eloquently, and quite impressively, that the urgency and scope that involved the creation of nation states after the Second World War was not the neat and tidy reorganization American school children are fed. It was messy, violent and at times corrosive to civil society. Despite this, the formation of new and more equitable Europe coalesced. Understanding how nations dealt with the trauma of war and walked back is impressive enough. That Judt wrote it in a readable manner as such is a scholastic achievement worth noting.

After I completed my studies, I went back to the United States and with my thesis research project on the election of Waldheim in 1980 fully underway, I parted ways with Judt’s work if only intending for it to be a moment.

In spring of that next year, 2010, I was reading the New York Times in a not unlovable diner in Milwaukee, my hometown, when I glanced over the obituaries only to find a neatly printed eulogy to a man whose works I had so valued and then forgotten. I still have the clipping from that day’s paper.

Since then, I have changed jobs several times, gotten married and moved, but when Judt’s posthumous: Thinking the Twentieth Century was published, I knew I had to read it. And re read it. I now own a copy of every one of his works. I try to re-read them from time to time to maintain a clear head. Anytime I despair about the rightness of social-democracy I open to the front page his minor work, Ill Fares the Land and read the quote: “There is something wrong with the way we live today” and feel hope that I was not the only one to have ever felt thusly.

Judt made many enemies with his calls for what he believed to be justice in the case of a multinational Palestine, and for a more collective USA. I think that those beliefs came from the heart and the head, and if they do not occur, it does not make him any less of a brave thinker for having spoken the words.

As a full time professor, researcher and writer for a myriad of organizations and papers, Judt was not featured frequently as a talking head on Cable TV. His words appeared in publications and his interviews look to be generally egalitarian.

Unlike his fellow Anglo-American, the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens, Judt’s face does not appear on a wide variety of images in the web. Top among my favorite of those small number is one in which Judt, kneeling between the partition separating his bedroom and another room, looks off camera with a sort of still calm. Holding a simple glass, and behind his left shoulder at the foot of a bed lies an unfurled newspaper with a pen set beside it. The bed is a clean white and made neatly. Unassuming except for the red piece of cloth lying at the foot of the bed, the room and the surroundings are a fantastic image of the man’s life itself. Eloquent, tidy, and unassuming.  Judt never seems to have sought fanfare or prestige. His work was what counted, and much like the man in the picture, the rest is just filler.

Germany had become a nation of walkers. Men, women, children and the infirm all at some point in time and across the formerly spacious Reich left their homes, shoppes and places of worship toward the center or west of Germany. The sins committed by fathers and sons of Germany had come home, and many faced a fork in the road of their lives: Suicide and a quick death, or run, and stave off death at least for a little while. In After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation attempts to bring this dark and turbulent era of peace to light in hopes of putting a mirror to the faces of an overly righteous east and west.

While conventional knowledge of the Russian atrocities in Berlin and elsewhere was widely available and shared during the Cold War, less discussed, if known, was the atrocities committed by French, English and American soldiers against the occupied populous from the time of Germany’s surrender through the creation of the West German state in the late 1940s. To be sure, on scale alone, Russia’s crimes against the German people are of a magnitude unmatched elsewhere in continental history since perhaps the 30 Years War.

MacDonogh is adept at exploring and interweaving the Macro and the Mico scale of destruction that permeated not just from an economic perspective, but also the fraying of the cultural fabric of German society. For example, the assault of German women was also compounded by the fact that many women were later forced to commoditize their bodies in order to procure goods for their families that they needed to survive. This begrudged the German men, if any were left, and had an emasculating effect that likely put strains on thousands of post war marriages.

In addition, through utilizing personal narratives, MacDonogh is skillfully able to create a complex portrait of persons and places that provides a human face to the occupation while not neglecting the need to examine the topic in a broad, generally readable, manner.

                At the risk of stating the obvious, any academic student will quickly realize that it is inherently difficult to create a broad and stimulating historical examination of a period of time that occupies the better part of a decade and spans several countries and hundreds of historical actors. The author does his best, but by the time the reader reaches the occupation of Austria, the intellectual and emotional reserves are run thin. This is unfortunate, because the occupation of former Hapsburg lands is almost more interesting than the increasingly homogenized Germany. When occupying forces entered the west and east of the countries, respectively, they happened upon a country filled with deportees from the east as well as Slovenes, Croats, Italians as well as native Austrians.

In many cases, the German speaking evacuees had been forcibly put on trains or forced to walk the hundreds if not thousands of miles to the Austrian border while experiencing every conceivable type of deprivation and denigration. This presented a complex issue to the three occupying nations (UK, USA, USSR), who approached their occupying duty in Austria with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The English were bored, the Americans were confused, and the Russians mainly concerned with shipping everything of industrial or economic value back to the charred and destroyed areas in the east. This is in stark contrast to the attitudes of the occupiers of Germany proper, where the attitudes of the Big Three were almost uniformly punitive. It is a shame that Macdonogh does not spend more time on this analysis, as he becomes more involved in presenting an ever growing and wearying amount of evidence of Allied crimes.

Another particularly jarring moment is the oft overlooked (or purposefully hidden) role of the English troops in ‘repatriating’ Cossack troops who had fought under German flag against Bolshevik’s, but as Stalin made clear, they were still citizens of his Soviet Union and therefore his to deal with. This in effect was a mass deportation of men but also their women and children to the east and an almost certain death. A slightly moving if romanticized moment occurs when the German commander of the Cossacks, Helmut Von Pannwitz, chooses to go to Russia with the rest of the men under his command, though strictly speaking as a Wehrmacht officer in British custody he was not forced to go with them. Macdonogh masterfully shows the connections that people make during wartime that have long reverberating effects. Pannwitz was summarily shot in Moscow upon his arrival for crimes against the Slavs in Yugoslavia. The casualness with which death was meted out after the supposed peace is one of the great unmentioned themes of the Macdonogh’s work, and is the element that sticks with the reader the most after conclusion.

The race to the finish of a conflict often includes a frenzied period of violence in advance of the coming peace. Before the guns went silent on the eleventh hour on the eleventh day on the eleventh month in the last Great War, the artillery from both sides rang constantly, hoping to add one more body to the enemy’s cemeteries and wastelands. In the second war, violence of that sort continued unabated long after the ink on the losers signed documents went dry. If anything, Macdonogh show readers that assault, looting and murder petered out only after the perpetrators appetite, whetted by 6 years of deprivation, had been satiated.

In the west, the narrative shown to school children and uninformed adults is one of monastically abstinent American and British soldiers entering a benighted Germany, grateful for their carpet bombings and ‘liberating’ them from their possessions and in some cases, lives. Instead, what Macdonogh shows is that brutality is not party to one nation or one side. Instead it is a crime that makes even victors become villains.

Recommended for readers familiar with Central European social history and revisionist narratives.

  After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles MacDonogh. Basic Books USA: 2007. 656 Pages.  Purchased copy.

I am finishing up the last book in Richard J Evans’ trilogy on the history of the Third Reich and one of the most striking things I find about his narrative is the way it eerily presents some of the fixtures of post-war West Germany and later the reunified Germany. In essence what I mean is the way that when the more conservative historical fixtures of society saw that the war would end soon and that Nazism was not easily defeated by internal agencies, they laid in wait until the postwar era in order to ‘revitalize’ Germany through a platform that appealed to natural social-Christian elements of the prewar period. Namely these involved the reintroduction of conservative Catholic or Protestant Christian idealism paired with a fairly large objection to secularism or state monopoly.

Viewed through this lens, I think the post-war Chrisian conservative attraction to the populous a large makes a lot of sense. after ~10 years of a rigidly secular or quasi-occultist nationalism, the return to a ‘previous’ Germany that was almost entirely obliterated by war, famine and genocide is understandably attractive.

One of the things that I loved about the early seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9), was the ever-present conversation on collective guilt and war memory, discussed through the lens of the Cardassians and their subterfuge about Bajor. The Federation, acting as a kind of UN peace keepers on DS9 (called Tarak Nor by the Cardassians) struggle to keep order as well as understand two societies that have spent decades in a bloody combat.

Specifically, the episode “Cardassians” from season two mirrors the plight of children in eastern Europe after the Second World War. Russian sired children in Germany  is a good example. German sired children in Russia too.

The complicated and painful record of occupation has been a topic that only recently has lost some of its stigma. In all cases, the children of the occupiers leave a visceral and ever-present reminder of what  occurred in the past. In both fiction and real-life, the collective memory of the trauma of occupation can stifle efforts at creating a new state out of the ashes of the past, as well as be an impediment to an open and more harmonious society.  It’s in situations like that that reconciliation is not only called for, but necessary.

Great coverage here from my favourite blog (Londonist) for my home away from home:

The average price of a home in the city already stands somewhere around the £383,000 mark. But the Centre for Economics and Business Research predicts this’ll rise around 31% over the next five years, breaching the £500,000 mark comfortably before 2020. That’s a faster rise than any other UK region: in the north east, by contrast, the CEBR reckons prices will climb barely 2.3% by 2018.

London has always been an expensive place to live, especially as the buildings became nicer/cleaner. With the virtual demolition of whole swaths of the East End for the Olympic games, a valuable redevelopment chance was missed. In my humble opinion.

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